As today is, as everyone who has access to the Internet is aware, the date on which Marty McFly arrives in the future from 1985 in Back to the Future II, I was reminded of my one real problem with the Back to the Future films by a conversation about this with Philip Purser-Hallard.
To be clear, I enjoy the Back to the Future films. I think the first one is pretty good, the second one is excellent, and I can’t remember anything about the third except something about a steam train, even though I have it on DVD, but don’t remember thinking it was bad.
The films do, though, have a problem with race. There’s the stereotypical Arab terrorists and the stereotypical Japanese businessman, but those are pretty much par for the course in 1980s films (it could be worse — the pile of DVDs I got in the Network sale the other week reminded me just how acceptable blackface was in the 80s…) but the real problem is with the treatment of black people.
Now, the Back to the Future time-travel mechanic is simple — you go back to the past, you change the future. It’s a single, changeable, timeline, with no room in it for what Doctor Who apparently recently referred to as a “bootstrap paradox”. Which is actually fair enough, because a universe which allowed such things would also be one where the second law of thermodynamics didn’t apply, and so would have a second massive implausibility on top of the implausibility that is time travel.
And we know this is true — the Twin Pines becomes the Lone Pine, Marty’s dad has a different career, and so on. Going back into the past changes the present.
But there are two occasions — and only two — in the first film where that time-travel mechanic is broken, and Marty *causes* something that already existed in his time.
The first is when he gives a cleaner called Goldie Wilson the idea to stand as mayor — and we’ve seen Goldie Wilson *is* the mayor later on. (Indeed, that is often cited as another of the film’s problems with race, as it’s easy to see it as saying that electing Wilson, who is black, as mayor contributed to the town’s decay).
The second is when he plays Johnny B Goode, and Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck and lets him hear the “new sound” he’s been looking for.
Now, this is also a bit dodgy racially itself — while the common Internet narrative that white people “stole” black people’s music and built rock & roll around it is a little oversimplified, we can safely say that what *didn’t* happen is black copycats stealing white innovators’ ideas.
But what strikes me is that there are two points where the film’s internal logic breaks down. Neither of those points are necessary for the plot (the phone call could have been left out of the Enchantment Under the Sea section and all that would have been lost is a single joke, and the Goldie Wilson bit doesn’t even add that much). Both of them *completely* break the logic of the film. And they are also the only two points in the film where Marty interacts with black people.
I don’t think the people who made Back to the Future were *intentionally* racist, but the net result does seem to be a world where black people can only get ideas from white people, and where Marty McFly’s whitesaviourpowers are so great they can actually break the laws of time.
A shame, as this is quite a severe blemish on what is otherwise a very enjoyable film.